The news from Pakistan is full of feel-good stories about the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was allowed to return Sunday after eight years of exile in Saudi Arabia without being arrested and immediately deported, as he was in September when he first tried to return.
The government arrested thousands of Sharif's supporters shortly before his return, in order to prevent the occasion from getting too joyous, and deployed hundreds of policemen to cordon off the airport and try to prevent anything joyous from happening there either.
But they were unsuccessful, as a crowd estimated at a thousand breached the cordon and greeted the returning hero at the terminal. How poignant!
Nawaz Sharif may not be able to contest the election because of a prior conviction. But who cares?
Or maybe he will be able to participate after all. Pakistani observers have been speculating that Sharif must have made a deal with Musharraf, perhaps one similar to the National Reconciliation Ordinance which granted amnesty to (some) (current and) former politicians and thus allowed Bhutto to return from Dubai last month.
Sharif and Musharraf both deny that any such deal has been made. But the Indian news service DNA has some interesting details about the nonexistent arrangement.
Others have said that Saudi King Abdullah has been calling the shots here; he has hosted Nawaz Sharif ever since Musharraf deposed the former PM in a bloodless coup in 1999. The king also provided an airplane for Nawaz Sharif's return, and has reportedly given him two bulletproof cars and offered him a helicopter for the duration of the campaign.
Musharraf traveled to Saudi Arabia last week, his first trip abroad since November 3, when the President General declared a state of emergency (supposedly because of the threat of terrorism) and imposed de facto martial law (which hasn't stopped the terrorism, as illustrated by the 35 dead from two suicide bombings in Rawalpindi).
Perhaps Musharraf's clampdown has been ineffective because it has targeted judges and lawyers and human rights advocates and political activists, rather than the suicide bombers who are supposedly Pakistan's big problem.
Prior to November 3rd, Musharraf's big problem was the obvious fact that his October 6 "re-election" was illegal -- for at least three different reasons! -- and six petitions against it had been filed with the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.
The court was apparently about to rule the "election" illegal, and whether or not Musharraf had already been thinking about consolidating his power by declaring a state of emergency, this was clearly the time to do it.
So the President General went to the Supreme Court and asked the justices to support his declaration of emergency. Seven justices (including Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry) refused, and then they were all relieved of their duties and taken into custody. All seven are reportedly still under house arrest.
Sharif and his brother and his wife and Benazir Bhutto are all getting ready to file their papers for the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for early January.
Monday is the deadline for filing and Nawaz Sharif appears to have returned at precisely the last possible moment. Fancy that!
Independent opposition politician Imran Khan isn't buying it.
In his opinion, any politician willing to contest an election under these conditions -- with the Constitution in abeyance and the Rule of Law suspended, with political activists in prison and severe restrictions on what the media can report -- is merely lending support to the ongoing emergency rule.
Imran Khan is prepared to boycott the elections unless the rule of law is restored, the Constitution reinstated, the Supreme Court reconstituted.
And the alliance of democratic opposition parties says they'll call for a boycott of the election unless emergency rule is lifted within the next four days.
There is no indication that a lifting of the emergency is being considered.
But Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif and all their friends are filing their papers anyway.
O the bets one must hedge!